[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
The first time I climbed a mountain, I had only been a resident of California for a few weeks. I went with my ex-boyfriend, our flatlander quads burning as we strained our way up 4,000 feet. The peak was hard-earned and glorious. The next day, our legs ached and we marveled at how the mountain challenged us in a new way. We were both former Division 1 runners; we knew pain, we just weren't yet familiar with mountain pain.
Over a year later, I started trail running, slowly and cautiously exploring the mountain ranges in Southern California. I got lost too many times to count, underestimated how much food or water I would need, over-dressed and under-dressed, and eventually found myself a running partner, who I ran with every weekend. We pushed each other, encouraged each other, and picked each other up. Having a good friend to share mountain miles with made remote landscapes less daunting.
As time went by, I grew more adept at running down technical trails. I started falling less and noticed my quads grow thicker and hard with muscle. When that friend moved out of state, I started running more on my own. I missed our constant stream of chatter and the companionship we'd found. I missed knowing he'd be at the trailhead waiting for me to arrive, and I missed our belly laughs. But having to run by myself helped me become even more accountable. Nobody would be waiting for me at the trailhead. Nobody would be there to distract me from my own mind. Nobody would be there to pick me up when I fell, and I have fallen many, many times. Doing hard things matters, and sometimes, doing hard things alone matters, too.
Last Saturday, I went to Mount Wilson to do a 20 mile training run. I went by myself, not because I don't know anyone to run with, but because I needed to run alone. I didn't want to keep up a conversation. I didn't even want to listen to anything. I left my headphones in my car and started climbing.
There were a lot of people out, because it was a beautiful Saturday morning and beautiful Saturday mornings should not be wasted. The higher I climbed, the fewer people I saw. "Great job!" one couple shouted as I ran past. Another woman, who was hiking with two men, moved to the side of a smooth section of trail and called out, "Be careful!" I wasn't sure if she meant be careful of my footing, or be careful of the heat, or be careful of running up a mountain alone, as a solitary woman who could have been doing anything at all on a Saturday morning but who was, for some reason, scaling the side of a mountain (twice).
Be careful, I thought to myself. Of what? I'm not usually uneasy on mountains, especially a mountain like Mount Wilson, which I've climbed dozens of times. I've seen bears and rattlesnakes and although I've never seen a mountain lion, I'm sure a mountain lion has seen me. I'm more scared of other people than I am of animals, but I've learned that there are fewer sketchy people on a mountain simply because it's more difficult to be on a mountain than it is to be a street corner. In my many years of running, I've been followed by cars, been catcalled dozens of times, and harassed/stalked online. There are so many things a woman ought to be careful of, most of which aren't on a mountain. You be careful, too, I wanted to say, but I was already long past her.
Later, on an especially steep section of the trail, I caught a group of three women hiking. "Are you even tired?!" one of them asked me. "Of course," I said, "you all are doing great." Another one said, "I'm so jealous of your legs, you're so strong." She was not the first person ever to comment on my body on a mountain, but her comment felt especially well timed. I'd been feeling extra self-conscious of my legs lately, because I've been revitalizing my wardrobe and my legs don't nicely fit into normal jeans. My calves are big, my quads bulky, and my hip to waist ratio exaggerated at best. If jeans fit my thighs, they never fit my waist and vice versa. One random woman on the mountain flipped a switch in my brain. I'd been thinking about my legs all wrong; they weren't too big, they were strong. I climbed 7,000 feet without blinking. I was powerful.
Maybe that switch wouldn't have flipped if I'd been with someone, or if I'd had voices in my ears. There is nothing wrong with listening to audiobooks or podcasts or music during a run. Most days, I shove earbuds in and let someone else's voice entertain me or teach me something. But running alone, without any distractions, gives me time to think, time to be contemplative, time for my brain and body to work in sync. It's difficult to find quiet time, and even more difficult to let my mind truly wander.
I had an entire conversation with myself on Saturday as I climbed the mountain the first time. I thought about how I've yet to figure out how to reconcile two parts of myself; the part of me that is homesick for my family in Wisconsin and the part of me that feels blissfully at home here, high in the mountains where the air is crisp and clean and where I've learned, truly, how much strength is required to love oneself. Being at home in two different places means that, no matter where I am, I'll always feel a little homesick.
I thought about my art and words, and how difficult it is to make art with words. How words are all we have, and also, sometimes, not enough. Part of me is jealous of painters and sculptors, who don't need words to express themselves and whose lives are not dedicated to arguing with themselves on a page. I thought about a poem I recently wrote called Rain, and repeated it over half a dozen times looking for ways to make it tighter, more punchy, more cutting, more clean.
I thought about so many things that five and a half hours went by quickly. I felt strong and comfortable all morning, easily climbing a mountain that had intimidated me only a few years ago. Most of the time, growth is like that; you don't even notice it happening until you take a moment to look backward and see how far you've come.